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It’s normal for trail runners to have an up-and-down relationship with exercise. Many runners are driven, whether by competition or another motivating factor to get out and train consistently, logging many miles throughout a training cycle. But, what happens when you can’t stop, and running becomes an addictive behavior?
“Exercise dependency is very normalized and even glorified in our culture,” says Haleigh Fisher, a licensed counselor at Grapevine Wellness Center in Texas who specializes in working with athletes. “One look at Instagram and you will see a culture that idolizes making fitness your life and identity.” She warns that just because culture celebrates something, that doesn’t mean it’s normal or even healthy. “It doesn’t mean it is fulfilling you or helping you have the fullest, most joy-filled life you desire.”
Runners might be particularly susceptible to this kind of dependency because running, like other cardio activities, releases endorphins associated with positive feelings that could potentially lead to more dependent behaviors. Combine that with the #nodaysoff fitspo culture that’s percolating on the Internet, and athletes can find themselves spiraling into unhealthy dependency on their activity.“It’s not talked about nearly enough in the endurance community,” says Marisa Asplund, a sports psychologist and licensed counselor whose Colorado practice caters to athletes working through exercise dependency. “Running can be therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. You need more than one coping mechanism for life.”
What Is Exercise Dependency?
Exercise dependency is sometimes referred to as exercise addiction, though it’s not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which only currently recognizes gambling as addictive behavior. Researchers and clinicians in the field prefer to refer to it as exercise dependency or compulsion, because, unlike gambling, exercise-dependent people aren’t engaging in the behavior in pursuit of a reward (like with gambling) but are rather trying to avoid negative feelings associated with not exercising.
Asplund explains that there are biological underpinnings for exercise dependency. “The body begins to cross signals about what relaxes it, and begins to misinterpret arousal, exercise, as something that soothes it,” she says. “The nervous system becomes very dysregulated.”
You might feel that your evening jog is helping you relax, and it could, but it’s problematic when exercise becomes your only coping tool for stress and intense emotion. Athletes can get stuck in a cycle of compounding stress that leads to ever-increasing activity.
“Exercise becomes compulsive when an athlete’s mindset toward activity becomes highly rigid and perfectionistic,” says Kara Bazzi, the co-founder and Clinical Director of Opal: Food+Body Wisdom. “In a healthy relationship with exercise, you would feel the choice to exercise, including not exercising if the situation calls for it.”
“There is a lot of literature and widely held beliefs that exercise helps mental health,” says Bazzi. “This is true. It’s also true that for folks who are compulsive, exercise is used to alleviate negative feelings like guilt.” It becomes a negative feedback loop to avoid bad feelings rather than promoting positive ones.
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What Are Signs Of Exercise Dependency?
It can be challenging to disentangle motivation from dependency in the world of endurance sports, but there are some behaviors that indicate when an athlete’s training changes from being productive to being harmful.
According to Asplund, exercise dependency often coexists with disordered eating, compounding the severity. If the motivation for exercise is tied to compensation for food as a way to control body weight or image, that’s an indication the relationship is unhealthy.
Rigid, rule-governed behavior with no flexibility, like sticking to an exercise plan despite extreme fatigue or injury can also be an indication. Athletes will plan life events and commitments around time for exercise, in a way that goes far beyond commitment. Exercise dependency can cause conflicts with relationships, work and other areas of life as someone devotes ever more time to working out.
“You feel conflicted between spending four hours in the mountains or four hours with your family,” says Fisher, “but you choose the mountains every time, not because you want to, but you feel like you have to in order to avoid the emotional distress not choosing them would cause.”
Dependency can cause athletes to feel withdrawal symptoms and emotional instability if they miss a run or workout. That could manifest as anxiety, depression or anger. A missed workout could lead to a full day of dwelling on the run, obsessing about the calories that weren’t burned and compensating with food restrictions. Intrusive thoughts like, When am I going to exercise? How can I add in more? How can I burn more calories? can dominate thoughts.
Athletes struggling with dependency might feel like they’re never doing enough and need to constantly increase the amount of time and intensity in their running to achieve the emotional effect they want. They’ll run longer, add more vert and always try to train faster, no matter what.
“Patterns or behaviors that are most noticeable and can help distinguish exercise addiction in endurance athletes are training when injured, continuously missing important life events, having their mind dominated with thoughts of exercise, tying permission to eat with having exercised, and the inability to emotionally regulate if not able to exercise,” says Fisher.
Bazzi recommends athletes approach their habits with curiosity instead of judgment and encourages them to ask questions. “Do you need to exercise in order to feel OK about yourself or your day? Do you at times struggle with choosing exercise over other things/people you value in your life? Have you been confronted by a loved one who is concerned with your exercise patterns? Do you find yourself intensely critical of your performance in sport or movement? Do you feel the need to “earn” what you eat or exercise to compensate for what you eat?”
If an athlete identifies with one or more of those questions, it could be worth examining their relationship with running. Technology can also create a negative feedback loop for athletes with dependency. Asplund recommends athletes prone to compulsion turn off step counters, fitness trackers and tune out Strava and other fitness apps that might drive some compulsive behaviors.
Bazzi says there’s hope for people struggling with a compulsive mindset: “We have seen that people can, with hard, intentional and uncomfortable work, transform their mindset in relation to exercise where they become more flexible and free in their choices around movement.”
Asplund recommends body-scan meditations for athletes or anyone who has a tendency to dissociate from their body. This involves creating a deep connection to physical feelings that might otherwise be shut out in an attempt to pursue movement. By mentally scanning from head to feet, athletes can re-attune themselves to their physical bodies, and bring awareness back into themselves.
Anyone struggling with exercise dependency should know that they’re not alone and that many athletes face these same tough questions. Recovery is also a team sport. Anyone wanting to investigate their relationship with activity should reach out to a mental health professional, particularly one that specializes in athletes.
“Involving coaches, support systems and teammates is vital in having a holistic approach for accountability, support and training-plan adjustments if needed,” says Fisher.
It can also be helpful for athletes to spend time connecting with other elements of their identity that don’t have to do with physical activity. Starting a gratitude journal or mindfulness practice can help draw attention to other positive things and help re-regulate negative emotions and draw attention to one’s innate value outside of athletic achievement.
“It’s OK to sleep in, or miss a long run after margarita night with your friends and to not feel guilty about it,” says Fisher. “Basically, it’s OK if exercise is only a part of your life, not your whole life.”
Zoë Rom is Assistant Editor at Trail Runner and host of the DNF Podcast. She enjoys podcasts and pizza.